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Practicing Eternity

In the beginning was the Tao.
All things issue from it;
all things return to it.

To find the origin,
trace back the manifestations.
When you recognize the children
and find the mother,
you will be free of sorrow.

If you close your mind in judgments
and traffic in desires,
your heart will be troubled.
If you keep your mind from judging
and aren’t led by the senses,
your heart will find peace.

Seeing in darkness is clarity.
Knowing how to yield is strength.
Use your own light
and return to the Source of light.
This is called practicing eternity.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 52, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about being expressions of the infinite and eternal Tao. Today, Lao Tzu uses the term manifestations. What are these manifestations? Children of the Tao. The Tao is our beginning. It is our mother. All things start there and all things return there.

Today, Lao Tzu is teaching us the path to freedom from sorrow, to find peace in your heart. This is to return to the Source of light. Which Lao Tzu calls practicing eternity. We have said that it is only an illusion that we are separate, finite, temporal beings. The reality is that we are connected to the infinite and eternal Tao. We are all one with it.

Realizing that, is practicing eternity. Realize that you are a manifestation of the Tao. You, along with all beings, are a child with a mother. Find the children, and you find the mother. How does this give us freedom from sorrow? Well, it helps to understand the reason for sorrow. Why is there sorrow? Because of separateness. As long as we view ourselves as separate, as long as we don’t realize our connectedness to all things with the Tao, that separateness produces sorrow in us, in our world.

That feeling of separateness is what causes us to close our minds in judgments. We make war on our fellow children. We judge them as being separate from us. Our hearts become troubled because our hearts are where we have the closest connection with all beings. But, having failed to realize our connection to all beings we traffic in all kinds of desires. Anything to fill the empty hole we have created inside of us.

Lao Tzu wants us to find our origin. Go back to the beginning. You do that by tracing your way back. Recognize the children for what they are. Intimately connected to the Tao. Keep your mind from judging. And, don’t let your senses be your guide. No, there is something greater inside each and every one of us than our five senses to guide us. This is the path to a heart at peace again.

So, we need to look inside ourselves. Look deep into the darkness; and see with true clarity. I am not separate. I am not alone. Yield to this understanding. Look beyond the illusion. The way things seem to be. Look beyond that. Yield to the truth. The eternal reality. That is your source of strength. You can return to the Source of light. But only when you are willing to use your own light. Your own light is a manifestation of the Source of light. Trace back that manifestation. Return. Return. That is practicing eternity. And it sure beats limiting myself to the finite and temporal. There is no peace there. Only sorrow.

Our Infinite And Eternal Existence

Every being in the Universe
is an expression of the Tao.
It springs into existence,
unconscious, perfect, free,
takes on a physical body,
lets circumstances complete it.
That is why every being
spontaneously honors the Tao.

The Tao gives birth to all beings,
nourishes them, maintains them, cares for them,
comforts them, protects them,
takes them back to itself,
creating without possessing,
acting without expecting,
guiding without interfering.
That is why love of the Tao
is in the very nature of things.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 51, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday’s chapter, I insisted, was all about living; all while we talked mostly about death, and preparing to die. I stand by what I said about death being a natural part of the life cycle; that the Tao leads us all through, ready or not. Better to come to the end of your life, prepared for death; than with a lifetime’s worth of regrets.

Today’ chapter is brimming with life. How all beings spontaneously honor the Tao by being an expression of the Tao in our Universe. How do we do that? By being born, growing to maturity, dieing, and decaying; only to become the very essence of more beings being born, and the process continues. It is, as we have said before. Dieing isn’t the end. It is only a step along the journey. I’d place it somewhere in the middle.

Now, Lao Tzu uses a little more mystical language to convey that truth. He says that every being springs into existence, unconscious, perfect, and free. Then, we take on a physical body. After that, we let circumstances complete us. Are you alive on planet Earth? You are being completed by the Tao. The Tao is using all the circumstances of your life to complete you. But, I wouldn’t be honoring the Tao, let alone what Lao Tzu is conveying to us, by limiting our completion to only what takes place within a certain span of years that we are currently conscious of. You know, the ones where you are identifying as you. Completion is much more than the 70 or 80 years that many of us will enjoy on planet Earth in this present consciousness.

Lao Tzu talks about springing into existence pre-conscious. That is how I would interpret that word unconscious. We exist prior to our being conscious of it. We are, nevertheless, perfect and free in that very moment. All that, is before we take on a body. We tend to tie our existence to our bodies. If that were the case, there could be no existence prior to our taking on a body. And, if we only exist in our bodies, then there can be no existence after our bodies die and decay. No wonder we fear death. Thinking that our existence is really that fleeting.

Bodies are finite and temporal things. Tying your existence to something like that, is very limiting. But, what if our existence wasn’t bound by those kinds of limitations? What if our existence was connected to something far greater than our bodies? What if our existence was connected with the eternal and infinite Tao? Doesn’t that change everything?

That is what I am convinced is the eternal reality, the way things really are. Now, I understand the way things seem to be. We are born, we live, we die, we’re gone. Maybe to some eternal reward? Maybe to some eternal punishment? Maybe to nothingness? That is the way things seem to be. And, we live our lives, as if the way things seem to be are the way things really are.

But, I think Lao Tzu was on to something. I think our existence is eternal, just like the Tao. The Tao gives birth to all beings. It nourishes them, it maintains them, it cares for them, it comforts them, it protects them, and it takes them back to itself. That sounds like eternity to me.

Lao Tzu began this chapter saying that we are all expressions of the Tao. Then, he says how we spontaneously honor the Tao. Spontaneous is a key word here. I don’t want to pass over it too quickly. Spontaneous means happening or arising without apparent external cause; self-generated. It means arising from a natural inclination or impulse and not external incitement or constraint. Spontaneous is a powerful word. It is something inherent in every being. The honor we give the Tao.

Lao Tzu goes on to say that love of the Tao is in our very nature. So, I want to talk about how we express honor and love of the Tao spontaneously. How it is inherent in our very nature. Understanding that spontaneous means that it isn’t externally motivated. The Tao creates without possessing. It acts without expecting. It guides without interfering.

This, I think, is where we misunderstand the way things really are, and fall for the illusion of the way things seem to be. We delude ourselves into thinking that we need some ruler, lording it over us, demanding our honor and respect, our obedience and our service.

But love makes no claims like that. We are creations, not possessions. The Tao acts without expecting anything in return from us. It guides us without interfering. If we are to be expressions of the Tao, if we are to be like the Master, then we also create without possessing. We act without expecting. We guide without interfering. This is the love of the Tao which you can see all around you. If you look with eyes to see, it is inherent in the nature of things. That is all the proof that I need that we are eternally existent with the Tao.

Preparing To Die

The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and he has nothing left to hold on to;
no illusions in his mind,
no resistance in his body.

He doesn’t think about his actions;
they flow from the core of his being.
He holds nothing back from life;
therefore he is ready for death,
as a man is ready for sleep
after a good day’s work.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 50, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

The art of living. That is what the Tao Te Ching is really all about. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu continues using the Master as our example of how to go about the art of living. I keep mentioning living because Lao Tzu, in today’s chapter, seems preoccupied with death. But, as we have learned before, the way things seem are not always the way things are. The real preoccupation is that of living. So, what is with this morbid fascination with death? Once again, I am looking at the way things seem to be. “He knows he is going to die…he has nothing left to hold on to…he is ready for death…”

Where does all this talk of death fit into the art of living. Well, like it or not, death, specifically preparing for death, is an integral part of our journey in life. Like, being ready for sleep after a good day’s work. That is the art of living.

How do we prepare for our death? For many, that would involve thinking of our loved ones who we precede in death. Maybe we are going to purchase life insurance. There is a euphemism if ever there was one. Life insurance? But it only pays off once I die? Well, it isn’t for you, silly. It is for those you have left behind, the still living. Plenty of people will seek to make arrangements for their funeral. There isn’t anything wrong with preparing for death in this way. But is this what Lao Tzu has in mind?

What does the Master do? He knows he is going to die. This is a fact of life. No escaping it. So, he gives himself up to whatever the moment brings. He lives his life in the present moment. It is as if he is saying, “Look, I know I am going to die. So, why even try to escape it? I am just going to give myself to it.” We, in the West, and especially with our modern technological advances which seek to postpone or prevent death, may not respect the Master here. It seems like a surrender. And we have plenty of fight left in us.

And that, my friends, is exactly our problem. At least, that is how Lao Tzu sees it. Death, regardless of what promises modern medicine may be making to us, is inevitable. I know that doesn’t mean we should hasten its arrival. That isn’t the point at all. But we do need to surrender to the inevitability of it. There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who are prepared for their death. And, those who are not. Lao Tzu’s words, today, are intended to help us to prepare.

So, I will ask the question one more time. How do we prepare? Specifically, how does the Master prepare?

The Master, knowing he is going to die, lets go of all of his attachments. What are we talking about here? Attachments would be illusions in our minds. The illusion that we can avoid death. That is certainly one kind of attachment that he lets go of. But also there are the resistances in his body. Mind and body, he has nothing left to hold on to.

Once again, I can see how this might seem to be giving in prematurely. But that isn’t what Lao Tzu is saying. If that is what it sounds like, it is only a reflection of how poorly I am conveying what Lao Tzu is saying. It isn’t even thinking about death. That is something I really should have said from the beginning. All this talk about dieing and how the Master prepares for death, knowing it is inevitable, and it would seem that is all the Master is thinking about. “I am going to die. Dear God, I am going to die. Here it is, sweet death, at last.”

But, that isn’t the way the Master prepares for death. Once he accepts the inevitability of it, he doesn’t give it another thought. Now, he is free to live. And, because he is free to live, he does live. Perhaps, for a very, very long time.

It is like I said at the beginning of this commentary. This isn’t about dieing. It is about living. The art of living. And, if we are going to really live, if our living is going to be an art, we just need to get that one matter settled. Death. You see, far from being morbidly preoccupied with death, Lao Tzu is showing us the way for us to occupy our lives. It is us that are so preoccupied with death. We, who are trying to avoid it. Who don’t want to even think about it, let alone talk about it. We are the ones that never get on with living, because we are too afraid of dieing. The Master isn’t afraid to die.

The reason we don’t want to think about it is because that is what we are always doing, thinking about it. But the Master doesn’t think about it. He isn’t thinking about the future. And, he isn’t burdened with the past. He is living in the present moment. Whatever the present moment brings. That is what occupies his thoughts. He has let go of his past and has no fears for the future. He is so free, that he doesn’t even think about his actions. They just flow from the core of his being. This is that not-doing doing, or effortless action that we have been talking about for so very long. Acting, without having to think about it. Your actions just flow, effortlessly.

But, what does any of this have to do with preparing for death? I am glad you asked. You see, when you are free to live, really free to live, you hold nothing back from living. Living isn’t a chore. It isn’t misery. You are free! Your life can be joyful. Now, when death comes, you are ready. Just like a person is ready for sleep after a good day’s work.

Setting The Bar High

The Master has no mind of her own.
She works with the mind of the people.

She is good to people who are good.
She is also good to people who aren’t good.
This is true goodness.

She trusts people who are trustworthy.
She also trusts people who aren’t trustworthy.
This is true trust.

The Master’s mind is like space.
People don’t understand her.
They look to her and wait.
She treats them like her own children.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 49, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

The way of the Master is our example for how to lead people. We have talked about Lao Tzu’s lessons for governing (leading) a lot, throughout the Tao Te Ching, and he still has plenty to say. Today, he is focusing on being an example for the people. How does the Master do it? She has no mind of her own. But let’s keep this in context. It isn’t just that she doesn’t have her own mind. For she does. But in leading, she works with the mind of the people. Often, as leaders, I think we slip up right here. We have our own mind. Our own agenda, and to Hell with what anyone else thinks. But the Master is always thinking about the mind of the people. What is on their minds? How can I lead them?

Some people are just naturally good. It is easy to be good to them. It hardly requires anything of us to be good to those who are good. To those, in particular, who are good to us. But a leader who is only good to those who are good, isn’t demonstrating true goodness. What you are really doing is paying back goodness. Not a bad thing. You ought to be good to people who are good. What, are you going to repay them with evil? No, that wouldn’t be good, either.

But Lao Tzu sets the bar a little bit higher. It isn’t enough just to be good to those who deserve it. If you want to demonstrate true goodness, you need to do what requires more of us. True goodness requires that you are also good to those who aren’t good. I didn’t say it was going to be easy. It is hard. What would be easy, is repaying evil with evil. That is the easiest thing to do. But to demonstrate true goodness, to serve as an example of true goodness, you need to do the hardest, rather than the easiest, thing. You have to be good to them, as well. That is working with the mind of the people.

The same can be said for an example of true trust. Merely trusting people who are worthy of your trust isn’t really trusting them, at all. True trust requires an element of faith. Saying, I trust you because I know I can trust you? If I know I can trust them, I really don’t have to give it a second thought. I can depend on them. I know I can.

But, what of people who have demonstrated to me that they are not worthy of my trust? Now, we are entering the danger zone. Now, is where faith comes in. When I say faith, I am not meaning it in a religious context. What I am meaning is stepping outside of your comfort zone. You don’t know what is out there. It might be good. It might be bad. But you won’t know until you step out. You could choose to stay where you know it is safe. In your comfort zone. But Lao Tzu is expecting something better of us. He is wanting us, as leaders, to be an example of true trust.

True trust may sound foolhardy to you. These people have already proven how untrustworthy they are. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. Yes, I get it. But this isn’t about being fooled. The Master is working with the mind of the people. She knows exactly what she is dealing with here. So, why would I want to trust them? I trust them, knowing they aren’t trustworthy, to demonstrate, not only to them, but to all the people, what true trust is. Because, as I said before, trusting someone that you can trust isn’t trust, at all. Only if they can’t be trusted, can you demonstrate true trust, by trusting them.

Like I said, this isn’t easy. It is hard. Very hard. But virtue wouldn’t be virtue if it was easy. The bar is high. Still, we can do this. If we couldn’t do it, it wouldn’t be virtue, it would just be impossible. And we aren’t talking about the impossible here. Just the very hard.

The Master’s mind is like space, Lao Tzu says. It is so above the ordinary. It is truly extraordinary. But extraordinary doesn’t mean I can’t do it. Ordinary minds just don’t get it. They see it as folly, and laugh out loud. But, while we may be amazed at the mind of the Master, and not understand her; still, people will look to her and wait. That is exactly the position the Master, as leader, is needing to be. Now, is where her example demonstrates her wisdom. She treats them like her own children. Not like children, but like her own children. She loves them and cares for them, just as she would her own children. That is the way of the Master.

The Practice Of Non-Interference

In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.

True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can’t be gained by interfering.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 48, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about acquiring more knowledge by looking outside ourselves. I said that Lao Tzu was dissuading us from doing that. Why? Because we already have everything we need right now, inside ourselves. Today, we are talking more about the pursuit of knowledge versus the practice of the Tao.

Lao Tzu says that in the pursuit of knowledge, every day you learn something new. There doesn’t seem anything wrong with that, in and of itself. But look at how the practice of the Tao differs. Instead of addition, there is subtraction. The practice of the Tao is about unlearning, or dropping things.

But what is Lao Tzu really going on about? It isn’t that adding knowledge is a particularly bad thing. What Lao Tzu is concerned about is whether we are forcing things. The practice of the Tao, the dropping of something every day, is letting go of the need to interfere with, or force, things. This is an every day practice. Less and less do you need to force things. You are dropping more with each passing day. Less and less remains.

We have talked about this before, of course. When you are adding, there is always more to add. But when you are subtracting, you do finally run out of things to subtract. You finally arrive at the point where you have emptied yourself. You arrive at the point of non-action. This not-doing doing, or effortless action, is a place where all desire has been dropped. Nothing is done and nothing is left undone. Or, to put it a different way there is nothing left to do.

I really don’t want this to sound like a lot of mumbo jumbo. This isn’t some mystical thing. It is simply non-interference. Not interfering with the flow of the Tao. Letting things go their own way is letting things take their natural course. That is the way of the Master. We become the master of our world by accepting the way things are, and letting them be the way they are, without interfering.

Where Are You Going? And What Are You Expecting To Find?

Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
you can see the essence of the Tao.

The more you know,
the less you understand.

The Master arrives without leaving,
sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 47, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

At first glance, today’s chapter seems to really be anti-knowledge. “The more you know, the less you understand.” But, I really invite you to look at it from a completely different perspective than that. What Lao Tzu is really doing in this chapter is not so much nay saying knowledge, as affirming what you already know. You don’t have to open your door to open your heart to the world. You can do that from right where you are, right now. You don’t have to look out the window to see the essence of the Tao. I know I like to spend a lot of time outside looking around at nature and seeing the essence of the Tao all around me. But, you don’t have to do that. And, neither do I. We have the very essence of the Tao inside of us. It resides in each of us. In our hearts.

So, we aren’t nay saying knowledge. But we are affirming that you already have all the knowledge you need. You already have everything you need. We have to learn to be content with what we already have. Instead of looking for it outside of ourselves. We look elsewhere; and the more knowledge we acquire, the less we understand. Why is that? Because it isn’t increased knowledge that we are lacking. It is, and always has been, too little reliance on the Tao inside of each one of us. That is what we fail to understand. And adding to our knowledge isn’t going to increase our understanding. It only serves to take us further away from where it is that the Tao resides.

That is why Lao Tzu says that the Master arrives without leaving. Where are you going? Do you even know? The Master has already arrived because the Master understands that he or she needs look no further than inside the heart. Home is, after all, where the heart is. That is why the Master is able to see the light without looking for it. The light, my friends, is inside of you. Be your own light. That is how the Master achieves without doing a thing. This is that effortless action, the not-doing doing, that we have been talking about so much. Be content with the way things are. Be content with what you already have. Go with the flow of the Tao inside of you. And, your every action will be effortless.

You Can And Must See Through The Fear

When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
the factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.

There is no greater illusion than fear,
no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself,
no greater misfortune than having an enemy.

Whoever can see through the fear will always be safe.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 46, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We have been talking a lot about the way things are (the eternal reality) versus the way things seem to be (call that the illusion, or delusion). In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu provides us with the stark difference between a country which is in harmony with the Tao (the way things are) and a country that is going counter to the Tao (one that has succumbed to delusion).

The greatest illusion of them all is the phantom of fear. The greatest wrong of them all is preparing to defend yourself, because you have been deluded by the illusion of fear. The greatest misfortune of them all is to consider any of your fellow human beings, your brothers and sisters, your enemies. Fear is a powerful illusion. It causes great delusion.

I want my own country to be in harmony with the Tao. A country like that would be one that values peace so highly, that it wouldn’t be waging wars all over the planet. A country like that would have a thriving economy, benefiting everyone.

Alas, my country is not in harmony with the Tao. Looking back on the history of my country, I find it difficult to find a time when it wasn’t waging war or preparing for war. Our economy is built on lies and deception. It benefits the few at the expense of the many. But what can one lone individual do?

What can one individual do, in the face of a whole country that is going counter to the Tao? Lao Tzu has some sage counsel. Because the Tao Te Ching is written to individuals like you and like me. And, this is what Lao Tzu tells us: “Whoever can see through the fear will always be safe.”

Perhaps that doesn’t seem like much. But it is really a lot. See through the fear. It is an illusion. Don’t be deluded by it. Whoever can see through the fear will always be safe. Our rulers tell us there is safety in numbers. They want us afraid. Very, very afraid. And they want us to pin our hopes on them. They want us to join with them, en masse, united against a common enemy that they have fabricated to delude us.

But, that is what has gotten us in all the trouble we are in today. Individuals can and must dissent. Individuals can and must see through the fear. The safety our rulers promise us is all an illusion. The safety that Lao Tzu offers us is real. In truth, it is the only reality. But, we have to see through the fear.

Letting The Tao Speak For Itself

True perfection seems imperfect,
yet it is perfectly itself.
True fullness seems empty,
yet it is fully present.

True straightness seems crooked.
True wisdom seems foolish.
True eloquence seems to stutter.

The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 45, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about looking for fulfillment and happiness in all the wrong places. Those places that are outside of ourselves. When all that we need to have happy and full lives, we already have inside of ourselves.

Today, Lao Tzu warns us that things aren’t what they seem. We can’t trust the way that we perceive things. Why? Because we have suffered through years of programming. And, because of that programming, our minds are biased to look at things in a skewed way. Everything that we see with our eyes, or hear with our ears, even our sense of smell, taste, and touch, have been conditioned. Over the years, your mind has formed preconceptions about everything that your senses are going to bring in touch with your mind.

That actually is a very useful thing. A lot of the time. It helps you in countless ways. Still, it can be a problem for us. And, it often is. We often see only what we want or expect to see. Only being able to see what we want or expect to see, might sound quite agreeable to us. But there is a downside. The reality is something different. And that means our judgment has been compromised.

Lao Tzu tells us that true perfection seems imperfect. Remember, we are talking about looking inside ourselves. We are so conditioned to compare and compete with others, we are measuring ourselves against some other measure of perfection. But that isn’t how to measure your own perfection. Look closer at it. Not at others. Do you see it? It is perfectly itself.

Do you feel like you are running on empty? I know, I feel that way sometimes, too. Okay, a lot of the time. But, what we need is a change in perspective. Perhaps, it is time to take a break. Go outside. Breathe in the fresh air. Take a walk around the block. Or, go for a run in the park. Just take five or ten minutes to change your scenery. That may be as simple as closing your eyes and taking a deep breath, or two, or three. Set aside whatever project you are trying so hard to get accomplished, and give it a rest. I know I make frequent trips outside for a change in scenery. And after a bit, I come back in, renewed and refreshed. That seemingly empty well has everything you need in this present moment. It only seems empty. Change the way you look at it. Then you’ll see.

We have been so conditioned to measure what is real, up against the standard of the illusion that true straightness will seem crooked. True wisdom will seem foolish. And true eloquence will seem to stutter. This is why we need to remember, always remember, that things are not what they seem to be.

Take a page from the Master’s handbook. When things happen, she doesn’t get all bent out of shape. She doesn’t resist. She simply allows things to happen as they happen. And then, she shapes events as they come. Molding them and using them in whatever way she can best work with them. Remember what Lao Tzu has been saying all along. Practice not-doing doing. Sometimes, a lot of the time, when our senses are screaming at us the loudest to do something, the best course of action is to do nothing. To do as the Master does. To step out of the way and let the Tao speak for itself.

Now, what does that mean? Stepping out of the way and letting the Tao speak for itself? Often we choose to interfere. To get in the way. But you have a power greater, inside of you, than anything you are going to encounter on the outside of yourself. It is the Tao inside of you. Let it do the talking. Let it do the acting. Go with its flow, and you will find that effortless action working through you.

Where Not To Find Fulfillment And Happiness

Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success or failure: which is more destructive?

If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never be truly fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 44, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about the value of effortless action. Not-doing doing. I even shared a little of how I practice it. I talked about my own decision to live life purposefully. To simplify and downsize. To see just how little it takes for me to live a happy and full life. Today, Lao Tzu begins with three rhetorical questions to get us thinking about the purpose of our own lives. Which is more important, fame or integrity? Which is more valuable, money or happiness? Which is more destructive, success or failure?

What Lao Tzu is doing here is asking us to take an honest assessment of our lives. Our purpose in living. What is important? What is more important? I don’t think you can’t have both fame and integrity. But that isn’t the question. The question is, which is more important? Because if you are looking to others for fulfillment, you will never be fulfilled.

Then there is the question of money and happiness. We tend to tie the two together some how. I will be happy if only I have enough money. But I never seem to have enough money, so I am not able, yet, to be happy. But, once I accumulate more money, once I have all the things I want that I need money to acquire, then I will be happy. Lao Tzu will have none of this. He states it pretty clearly. If your happiness depends on money, you will never be happy with yourself.

Who doesn’t want fulfillment? Who doesn’t want to be happy? I think we all do. We may all have different ways of going about our pursuit of it. And there is nothing at all wrong with that. We are individuals, after all. Vive la difference! But Lao Tzu wants us to understand that fulfillment and happiness are things to be found inside each of us, rather than outside of us.

We really get to the heart of the matter when we talk about success and failure. He has talked about that ladder before. You know the one. Where, instead of keeping our two feet standing on the solid ground of reality, we start going up and down rungs of the illusory ladder, encountering the phantoms of hope and fear. Now, the question isn’t about importance. Nor, is it about value. Now, it is all about destruction. Now, we ask the question that confronts the illusion with a huge dose of reality. The success we hope for and the failure we fear are both destructive. Which is more destructive? That is a pretty good question, and one that I am not going to attempt to answer.

They are both destructive. They don’t have to be equally destructive. One may be more destructive than the other. Or one may only seem to be more destructive than the other. For me, it is like choosing between the lesser of two evils in an election. You get evil either way. So why choose? You think that because one seems less evil or more evil than the other one, that it matters?

But let’s leave politics aside. I shouldn’t have even brought it up, since it isn’t what Lao Tzu is talking about. What he is talking about, is purposeful living. And, where not to look for fulfillment and happiness.
You won’t find it on that ladder.

Instead, you have to learn to be content with what you have. Be content. With what you already have.

Instead of fretting over the way things seem to be, rejoice in the way things are.

Once you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.

That is what it all boils down to. The key to the art of living. Not nearly as hard as we make it out to be. Still, you have to make some choices. You need to choose to be content. You need to choose to rejoice. And you need to realize the truth. The truth is right there. It isn’t very far away. You carry it inside of you. Look inside yourself and you will see.

The Value Of Non-Action

The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.

Teaching without words,
performing without actions:
That is the Master’s way.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 43, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter we return to the concept of Wu Wei. That could be translated as not-doing doing, or inactive action. But I see how saying, “Let your doing be not-doing or your action inactive” could be quite the challenge to wrap our minds around. I know it was for me. To begin with we need to understand yin and yang. And, how they interact together. Not-doing doing is yin yang. That is helpful but I also understand why me saying, “I am going to practice not-do do” might elicit laughter. Lao Tzu talked, just a couple of chapters ago, about why the fool laughs out loud when hearing of the Tao. He certainly gives the fool plenty to laugh out loud about. Still, especially for some of my newer followers that find themselves smack dab in the middle of the Tao Te Ching and wondering what I am going on and on about, I would like to make this concept of Wu Wei a little easier to understand. It is, after all, a very central concept in philosophical Taoism.

In the translation that we have before us, Stephen Mitchell translates it as “non-action” and says there is value in that. And there is. Too often we want to do something when doing nothing would be the best course of action.

But, I don’t think most of us properly understand what is meant by this non-action. It is more than just not-doing, as we already said when we defined it as not-doing doing. It isn’t non-action. It is inactive action. It isn’t just yin without any yang. Of course if all we have been doing for a long while is yang, maybe it is time to balance things out with a good dose of yin. Hopefully, this is making the sense I am trying to make.

For me, the best way to express Wu Wei is to call it effortless action. Acting effortlessly in everything that we do. That is the Master’s way. We see that manifested all the time. Especially in nature. Actually, nature shows us the way perfectly, if we only have eyes to see. But humans can and do demonstrate effortless action as well. You can see it demonstrated in the martial arts. The ease with which martial artists perform their every movement.

So, becoming an ardent observer of nature and taking up one or more of the martial arts would both be excellent ways of learning how to act effortlessly. But I know some of you are going to say that you simply don’t have the time for that.

So, I am going to tell you what I did. I determined that I needed to live purposefully. And, for me, that meant simplifying my life. Letting go of all the extra baggage I was carrying around. And, finding out how very little I actually need in order to live a happy and full life. I am not finished yet. So, don’t think I am speaking from some mountain top trying to convey wisdom here. I certainly don’t consider myself a master yet. I am still only an apprentice, with plenty more to learn. But, I can say, that I have managed to reduce the number of hours in any given week that I need to work in order to accumulate more and more and more. And never finding satisfaction in all that stuff. Nor, ever having enough hours to get everything done that I needed to get done.

Because I am now working a third of the hours I used to have to work, I have many more hours for not-doing doing. What does that mean? For me, it means that now, I don’t ever look back on my day at a long list of things I didn’t get done. I didn’t write the list in the first place. That helps. But it really doesn’t convey what I am trying to convey. When I lay my head down on my pillow at night, I do so, utterly amazed at all the things I got accomplished that day. It didn’t used to be that way. I used to look back on all the things that I was going to have to get done tomorrow. That never made for a good night’s sleep.

If I am actually conveying what I am trying to convey, it would be effortless action, or Wu Wei. I just go through the flow of each day. Doing things as the need arises. I have plenty of time for that. No pressures. No stress. I just effortlessly act throughout my day. Much in the same way that I am typing this up. Just letting it flow. Not forcing, just letting. And, just like that, it is finished.